Discovering a calling in Japan

Kayla Crews wants to continue her study of Japan culture and language.
By Kayla Crews

Kayla Crews wants to continue her study of Japan culture and language.

Discovering a calling in Japan

By Kayla Crews
University of Miami student Kayla Crews has always been fascinated with Japan and its culture. Participating in study abroad there made it all real.

This time last year, I was a graduating senior from a little public school in central Connecticut. I would have never thought that within as little as a year, I’d be in Japan, studying a language and culture I love.  

I have finished my first year at the University of Miami, majoring in creative writing with a minor in psychology and modern languages with a focus on Japanese and Spanish. I’ve learned many things about Japan that I would have never known if I didn’t have this study abroad experience. 

When I first landed in Japan, culture shock immediately hit. Everything was Japanese, the technology was very advanced (toilets would talk to you!), and unlike the United States, Japan is very homogenous. Knowing that I’d be in Japan for a month, I tried to prepare myself for the many differences compared to the U.S. and researched tips and tools that would help me enjoy my time to the fullest.

During our first week in Japan, we were living in Nobeoka, Miyazaki. Nobeoka is a small town, but filled with very kind and usually quiet people. We were immediately introduced to コンビニ (conbini) which are Japanese convenient stores. Unlike the U.S., these were very different and extremely helpful. Conbinis had everything you may ever need, ranging from hygiene care and toiletries to heated food and smoothies. I noticed that many businessmen and woman would go there to get dinner every day and that was normal. Usually, I’d never buy cooked food from a gas station but in Japanese convenient stores I’d buy a 4 course meal. Also during the first week, we traveled and hiked to many shrines and temples nearby. Our teacher was very knowledgeable about the history and meaning behind many monuments and the sacred areas we came across. We had the opportunity to do a scavenger hunt hosted by the JET program (Japan Exchange and Teaching) where we’d get clues and venture throughout Nobeoka doing challenges with people from the area. It was very fun and we made many friends while becoming more acquainted with the town we were living in.  

The next few weeks our group began to study very hard because our quizzes and exams were coming up. In my opinion, studying and learning was much more fun since we knew we needed the information to use in everyday life. I remember getting excited while learning about restaurant etiquette and menu readings because I would be able to use it when my friends and I go out to dinner that day. My friends and I would go out often to try foods that we couldn’t find back home. There were many bakeries, イザカヤ(izakayas- bars with small food dishes), food chains and cafes to explore. Our favorite cafe to attend was called 虎彦 (Torahiko). They offered a shaved ice and red bean dessert dish called かき氷 (Kakigori) that was absolutely delicious. My friends and I became really close with one of the owners named Izumi. She was incredibly nice to us throughout our time in Japan. She took us to the beach, karaoke and even held a party where we made たこやき (takoyaki - a popular dish native to Japan; seasoned dough balls made with squid), and held a surprise birthday celebration for my friend/classmate Frances. Izumi has made my experience in Japan unforgettable and my friends and I have memories that will last a lifetime.  

During the last few weeks we were preparing to travel to other parts of Japan, but before leaving we had the opportunity to attend and experience a traditional tea ceremony 茶の湯 (Chanoyu). During the tea ceremony we learned about the history of chanoyu, witnessed how the matcha tea is made and had the opportunity to make the tea ourselves. We also ate a Japanese sweet that was specially made and handcrafted just for us in the form of a hydrangea with dew drops. It was so beautiful making it hard to eat. Chanoyu is very sacred and formal because it symbolizes the morals of Japanese people. I believe togetherness, respect, and enjoyment were a few morals that the tea ceremony encompasses. Moving forward, other activities that have completely enlightened and impacted me were the school visits. In Miyazaki, we were able to visit and speak to an elementary school, middle school and high school. We played games, had conversations, ate lunch, and even went to recess with the students. Even though we weren’t fluent in Japanese, we still were able to communicate and learn about each other. The environment is very different from schools in the U.S. Students clean the floors and classrooms, the lunches are specially made and served inside the classroom, and the respect the kids have for the teachers and school is undeniable. I’ve always thought about teaching English overseas and this has fueled my desire to the maximum. The experience was nerve-wrecking but indescribably enjoyable. I’m not sure what my future holds but I know Japan will definitely be a part of it.  

Outside of Miyazaki, we explored many famous landmarks and popular attractions. The first place we visited was Oita. Oita is known for its many hot springs called 温泉 (onsens) which are hot springs that men and women can relax in. It’s very similar to a spa yet the hot water is naturally hot and pure. There are also boiling hot springs called “Hells” that you can see but not enter. These hells are also known for making delicious naturally boiled eggs. Next we went to Tokyo. This was one of the places I enjoyed the most. Tokyo is very big and has different towns/neighborhoods within it. For example, our hotel was in 浅草 (Asakusa) but we traveled to see temples in 原宿 Harajuku, which is still in Tokyo. Some parts of Tokyo remind me of New York like 渋谷(Shibuya). While others are more calm and open, which remind me of forests or campsites. The opportunities, places to explore, people to meet are endless in Tokyo. Some of the coolest things I’ve seen in Tokyo was watching a man dressed as Pikachu from Pokémon drive a real-life Mario Kart down the streets of Harajuku and gazing at the everyday fashion of the people who live there. The way of life in Tokyo is expressive, lively and inspiring to say the very least. Lastly, we spent our final days in Osaka. Osaka is the place where you can spend half of your life there and still have no desire to leave. People of all ages live in Osaka and many restaurants are open 24 hours. Osaka is known for its たこやき Takoyaki, and the 新世界 Shinsekai district/neighborhood which holds つ点画 the Hitachi Tower (Tsutenkaku). After visiting landmarks, my group had the opportunity to participate in a free kimono try-on at a popular history museum. We got to experience a little piece of what it was like in a past Japanese era; an experience I’ll never forget.  

Going to Japan has definitely changed my life. It’s confirmed to me that studying Japanese language and culture is something I want and need to keep pursuing. Having conversations with children of all ages, exploring the beautiful landmarks, using the language for everyday necessities and experiencing a lot of what Japan has to offer has completely enlightened me in a way I’ve never felt before. I highly recommend this study abroad program for anyone interested in Japanese culture and/or language. I’ve made some really good friends and connections in Japan and have extremely special memories. For my future, I’m very interested in the JET program and I see myself working in Japan someway, somehow. Japan has impacted me in the sense that there is so much of the world to explore beyond our comfort zone and where we were raised. It’s shown me major differences as well as similarities, and it was an incredible experience I believe everyone should have at least once in their life.